It’s difficult to explain quite how wonderful it has been to come back to school and be able to dawdle in corridors, move around classrooms and catch up on triumphs (and defeats!) of the weekend’s sporting fixtures. Of course, ‘back to normal’ is not the mantra – we must continue all efforts to keep ourselves safe, and there are and will be measures which get in the way of what we will want to do – but I’m enjoying coming back to school as though I had the irrepressible energy and starry-eyed enthusiasm of an eleven-year-old starting out on this most exciting of journeys!
It felt to me as I chatted to some victorious netballers on Saturday that a 28-8 win couldn’t quite explain their cacophonic euphoria: it was more than that, and I suspect that fellow parents and carers have had much the same experience as children have tumbled home full of stories about the day-to-day encounters with friends, first lessons with a different teacher or a live rehearsal. I was helping a justifiably confused new Year 12 student make his way to the Undercroft (‘Can it really be next to the Dungeons?’), and we queued behind Year 7 pupils jigging about as they sang an incomprehensible ditty which had them in stitches, and made us both smile: a chance ‘inter-generational’ moment which had no place in our bubbled world.
I had caught news of the BBC survey into kindness, a piece of research which has been jointly undertaken with the University of Sussex to investigate our attitudes and experiences to kindness and how it relates to our health and well-being, and spoke about this to pupils at the start of term. Quoting the Greek storyteller, Aesop, the BBC’s health correspondent, commented that ‘no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.’ The survey, which is sadly only open to those of us aged 18 or over, asks you to think of the three adjectives you associate with kindness, and takes you through a series of questions which ask you about the acts of kindness you have experienced, or done, how both made you feel (three adjectives, again); whether you think acts of kindness have been on the increase or decrease over your lifetime, whether they have become more frequent or become rarer as a result of COVID, the places where you see or experience acts of kindness frequently and those places where they are rare.
So, why the interest in kindness? As the principal investigator, Professor Robin Banerjee, explains, there’s not much controversy over what we understand by an act of kindness: an action which benefits someone else where the doer is not motivated by his, her or their own interest. But where does the motivation come from, and what is the impact is on the doer?
I explained to my obviously attentive audience that I was hazarding a guess at what is generating these research interests:, psychologists, turning their skills and scholarship to public health issues are asking what the impact of the new ways of leading our lives is on our mental health and our emotional wellbeing. Technological advance, like the apocryphal djinn, can never be re-inserted into the bottle once uncorked, and the ways we make friends, keep in touch with them and the ways we explore our relationships with those we know well and those we are getting to know, the ways we encounter each other, are changing. Public health strategy needs to understand what the impact of this has been. I guess we want to know whether we understand each other better or less well if our sense of belonging, our understanding of each other, is developed in part when we are physically apart. And whether we carry out acts of kindness more or less frequently when we are encountering each other virtually.
One thing I think the research will throw up quickly is that acts of kindness have a transformative effect on the person who does the act, the agent of the kindness. We are, it appears, in some way wired to feel positive when we do something to help someone else, even or particularly when there is little chance of acknowledgement or recognition or gratitude. If we look to serve others rather than ourselves, I explained, we make sense, we add up to something and we add up to something which doesn’t need anyone else’s validation or score sheet.
The pandemic drew out of many people a desire and a willingness to help others – the army of volunteers to support catch-up for pupils whose schooling was interrupted, or those who helped deliver food to isolated families unable to get out to shops or whose incomes were wiped out overnight. Some of this was cultivated, but much of it was instinctive and deep-seated. There really were heroes, many of them unsung. People’s kindness found a strategic strength and was absolutely critical.
But the pandemic also worked against much which makes and keeps us happy and healthy, and kept us physically apart, and more reliant on screens to keep in touch. There’s little wrong with using screens themselves, provided it’s safe and we follow safety guidelines, and avoid activities that are inherently risky or dangerous or damaging, but the opportunity costs can be considerable: it’s what we don’t do which matters.
Thank goodness, then, we will be together and getting back to unbubbled routines – subject to being really mindful of the Health & Safety routines around ventilation and wearing masks and washing hands – and we will have clubs, societies, sport, music, drama and outdoor education on tap to have fun, meet each other and spend time talking, in person, in the flesh, doing things that, if we weren’t there, just wouldn’t happen. Memories that last.
I would like this year to be one where we let our kindness grow. I want to hear the difference we will want to make. Let’s build on the wonderful work of individuals in the pandemic to develop a strategic kindness across our community and to making the difference we know is only possible if we aim at serving and helping others. It doesn’t need to be shouted from the treetops or broadcast – in fact, I think we’d all rather it wasn’t, and everyone knew and believed it happened because it happened. Secret agents of kindness?
That’s how I left it with the pupils, and I can’t wait to see what they do with their new-found experience of being together, of community, of caring, of feeling good because they are being kind.